Brian's Brokeback Mountain

Ted Allen starts to take the competition very seriously.

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(Or, perhaps, "The Other Side of Aspen, Part II")

Whoa -- what was that? Sweet mother of God, I think I just experienced an ... emotion ... while watching a reality show. This is creeping me out!

But, you see, at this point in the game, the feelings are really, well, real. We're beyond most of the silly stuff (although I thought that trout challenge was flawed -- more on that later.) After weeks and weeks of torture in Miami, then interminable waiting, then more torture in Aspen (we only torture in the most fashionable locations), to be followed by several more cruel weeks of waiting, the drama for our beloved cheftestants is at an absolute fever pitch. The challenges are serious, they're hard, and they're mostly focused on inspiring the chefs to really do their thing. And any of the final four chefs, now winnowed to three, sadly, would have been a deserving winner.

I had a conversation with Brian after he came so close to victory and then had it slip from his grasp, and he was pretty disappointed -- more than he let on in the show. I feel for him. He's a smart, charismatic guy; a class act throughout this whole season. I know his performance on TC has given a huge boost to an already terrific career. For more Ted Allen, check out his iVillage interview here.
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Dale, too, knows something about being close to glory and having it slip away. Before this show, he was cooking at the now dearly departed Trio, a nationally famous, avant-garde restaurant just north of Chicago that helped slingshot the careers of such great young chefs as Shawn McClain and Grant Achatz (both of whose food I've been privileged to eat there more than once). And then, owner Henry Adaniya decided to close Trio and retire.

To top it off, some fool decides to break up with Dale -- are you kidding me? Who the hell breaks up with a boyfriend who can cook?

Dale fell apart. He put his knives down for a year. To think that he only now has picked them up again to "find himself" on TC -- wow. I'm not gonna lie to you -- I welled up when he won tonight. I welled up when he said, "now I'm a chef again." It's just genuinely exciting to see somebody pick themselves up after a rough patch and to kick some serious ass. On national television. Under ridiculous pressures. Awesome. For more Ted Allen, check out his iVillage interview here.
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You can see how the drama is affecting Hung, too. Suddenly, even the icy competitor is talking about soul and love in food, and turning his thoughts to what a win could really mean -- to the parents who busted their asses to get him into this country, to get him educated, to fill him with ambition and passion. I don't think Hung expresses himself well in this regard. It somehow didn't move me, somehow didn't ring true. But I think it is true. I suspect that Hung was probably not raised to spend a lot of time on introspection (let alone on acting classes -- keep your day job, Chef Boy); rather, to stick his nose into the books, to work hard, and to be grateful for the chance. I do think Hung is realizing now that there's something deeper to this gig than fame, victory, or money from the Glad Family of Products. (Not that those things are particularly shabby.)

Enough Oprahsizing: Casey brings a more straightforward story. She's just a hard-working, passionate chef who takes chances and knows her stuff. Friends of mine who know her say she has always been badass, and she's really been bringing it lately, no? For more Ted Allen, check out his iVillage interview here.

On Battle Trout: I appreciate the idea, particularly with the scenic touch of the hot-air balloon (although I'm with Casey on the idea of riding in one -- looks pretty, but I'm not too into dangling from a gas-filled sack hundreds of feet above the mountains). With the exception of Hung, the terror was palpable when the chefs learned they were to cook trout for Eric Ripert, a seafood master, and a verrrrry discriminating palate on this show (and everywhere else, I'm sure). I recently ran into Eric in an airport, and was ashamed for him to see me slink into the food court for bad, corporate pizza -- but that's another story).

What bothered me was the conditions: The chefs had just 20 minutes to attempt cooking what for several of them was an unfamiliar fish on slanted, wobbly tree stumps, and some of the stumps looked wobblier than others. There wasn't enough room for them to work. Oh, well. I've said before, the show ain't called "It's Easy Being a Chef." Predictably, considering his expertise with fruits of the sea (and the river), Hung's dish looked the best -- after just 13 minutes, he was done. Or so he thought. I was as impressed with Hung as he was with himself. But after the bell sounded, he realized he had made the mistake of leaving out the lemon juice (and then compounded the mistake by admitting it to Eric). Casey, meanwhile, brought her trout game, full-on. And, so, Casey takes the win. Go, grrrrl! For more Ted Allen, check out his iVillage interview here.

Fast-forward to Cowboy-Land, where the secret ingredient is elk, which makes Hung a little whiny and Dale almost giddy. (An aside: Dale, does your mother need the Brokeback Mountain visual of you sleeping with "a few" cowboys? And how many is "a few?" Bad gay chef!)

Another, related aside: Despite my jokiness, above, it should come as no surprise that I disagree with the posters last week who think Dale should shut up about being gay. (I mean, just look at the outfit I'm wearing in that picture, above.) First of all, if you think about it for even a millisecond, straight folks throw their sexuality in *our * faces constantly, in every medium, far more often than we gays do when we get the occasional spotlight. Second, being "out" accomplishes an important goal for The Gays: it communicates that we're proud of who we are, it refutes the phony poison from those ignorant fools on the Right, and it empowers other gays to believe in themselves. It matters. Dale is unapologetically being himself, serving as a role model for gays everywhere who might not have otherwise dreamed they could become a chef, or get onto television. Or canoodle with ranch hands. I'm proud of him. For more Ted Allen, check out his iVillage interview here.

So our Chicago boy scores a win, at last, and makes it to the finals -- good for him. But are his knives sharp enough to cut it with Hung and Casey and take the whole megillah? You'll know a week from tonight! Thanks for watching, reading, and posting. And, by the way, as this season winds to a close, let me thank you all again for joining the conversation, here. Your insights (well, many of them) have been fascinating, and I've learned a lot from you. Like, for example, the difference between a habanero and a Scotch Bonnet, where the Slider got its name, and the fact that about 5% of you are Republicans (a good percentage, that).

So, since you're so smart, tell me: Who do YOU think will be Top Chef? See you at the finals!

Cheers, Ted

For more Ted Allen, check out his iVillage interview here.

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